A coal miners' tragedy: the village split by a 20-year feud

One resident is dead, another missing. And the community of Annesley Woodhouse remains torn apart by a bitter ideological dispute that once divided the soul of Britain. Ian Herbert reports
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The Independent Online

In the days when Old King Coal provided a good, £6 weekly wage and a way of life for tens of thousands of men and their families, Nottinghamshire was proud of saying that any England cricket selector seeking a new opening bowler need only peep down one of its pit-shafts. That boast is still true, in the cluster of mining villages centred on Annesley Woodhouse, on the southern fringe of Sherwood Forest.

The famous "bodyline" pace-bowling pair of Harold Larwood and Bill Voce are on the roll-call of legends who mined the deep, soft seam, 1,400ft below Annesley, then did their stuff for England. Copies of Larwood's birth and wedding certificates still adorn the walls of the Cricketers Arms pub behind the field where he used to play, testament to the abiding local pride in an extraordinary pit which delivered 12 men to the England side down the years.

Keith Frogson, a 16-year-old coal-face worker and half-decent local footballer, was no legend in the making when he began taking the same pit-shaft lift as Larwood & Co in 1958, but when it came to a passion for the pit and its proud traditions few could touch him.

Some put his intensity down to his South Wales mother, brought up on a mining history that included the 1831 Merthyr Riots. Others in Annesley just say he was a "fractious bugger". But "Froggy", as he was known, loved the colliery to his bones, and when Margaret Thatcher began disassembling it and many others in the 1980s, he found his mission, rising in resistance with Yorkshireman Arthur Scargill's National Union of Mineworkers.

But his mission was frustrating and hopeless, and it left Mr Frogson at odds with neighbours and friends in Annesley Woodhouse for the rest of his life. And that animosity may lie behind his violent death 19 days ago, at 62. Ten days later, an early-morning fire in his home destroyed the ground floor, but his 33-year-old daughter, Rachel, and her husband escaped unhurt.

In 1972 and 1974, when Annesley's men went on strike, Mr Frogson became a local hero on the picket line. But during the miners' strike of 1984-85, all but 52 of Annesley's 800 men abandoned the NUM, joined Nottinghamshire's conciliatory Union of Democratic Mine-workers (UDM) and crossed the picket line. Within 10 years, Annesley was dead and buried and, with it, the UDM's logic that compromise was worthwhile because Nottinghamshire's modern mines had a future Yorkshire's did not.

Most villagers packed their boots and helmets and found new lives as farm labourers, policemen and shopkeepers but Mr Frogson never let them forget the betrayal. To the end of his life, he would shout, "You scab bastard" across the street to any former miner he knew to be UDM.

The events that led to his death began at 10.45pm on 19 July, when Mr Frogson left the Forest Tavern, a two-minute walk from his home in Bentinck Street, after a quiet evening with his regular pint of mild at the bar. Outside, the words, "You bastard", were heard and within minutes he was dead, struck half a dozen times on the body and head with sharp-bladed instruments and left bleeding outside his terraced house, a two-minute walk from the pub. Police have a crossbow, found 30 yards from his body.

The man police want to talk to is Robert Boyer, 42, another former Nottinghamshire collier. Police said the men had a dispute years ago. Mr Boyer has been missing since the night of the murder. But the victim had recently confronted two local burglars. He believed in the old coal-mining community code of sorting out criminals without recourse to police. "That may have meant there was a vendetta," said Detective Chief Inspector Russ Foster, who is leading the murder inquiry.

But many former colliers said Mr Frogson won few friends by raking up the events of the 1980s in a village where most former colliers are UDM. "There's still bad feeling and animosity about it, even now," said Ken Elkington, 82, NUM branch secretary at Annesley for 14 years. "Some of the UDM are laughing. They're saying it serves him right. Froggy always knew who crossed picket lines. He didn't shout, 'Scab bastard' in fun. He was dead serious. He was dedicated. The strike defined him. He could never let it go."

Other villagers are more forceful. Mr Frogson was "rotten to the core", one said. And an associate who knew him for 30 years said UDM men will not mourn him. "He's carried on this vendetta for years," he said. "That was just Keith." The reaction from the other side of the picket-line divide is no less intense. The NUM men say Mr Frogson was sacked from the colliery after taking the rap for an NUM member who threw a brick through a UDM man's window.

In the street where he had lived and died, flower garlands and wreaths laid include an NUM strikers' badge and cap, and a picture of the small group who refused to go back to work, with Mr Frogson centre stage. "So proud to have stood shoulder to shoulder with you in 1984/5," the message reads.

Had the social decline that followed pit closures here not been so pronounced, the 1984-85 fault lines might have faded. But the poverty engendered by mass employment has spawned an epidemic of heroin addiction in the pit villages, revealed in an ITV Real Life documentary marking the 20th anniversary of the strike, the night before Mr Frogson's death. Many in Mr Scargill's Yorkshire heartland still consider Nottinghamshire to be the land of "softies" and strike-breakers. "When lads go from here to Sheffield for a night out, they can easily get the shit beaten out of them," said Graham Buxton, 47, a former UDM man at the now-defunct Bentinck colliery and a neighbour of Mr Frogson.

For some, this year's 20th anniversary has brought the rancour flooding back. When 600 former miners and their families met at the Ashington Leisure Centre on the Northumberland coalfield for an NUM anniversary in March, the union enforced a "no scabs" admission policy.

In Annesley, Mr Frogson appeared to be a man on the wrong side of the Yorkshire/ Notts county line. The diminutive father of three had split with his wife Sally soon after the strike. But he was gregarious and seemed happy, usually whistling and joking as he walked his three lurcher dogs. But his world had become increasingly alien, his beloved pit replaced by faceless business parks and faceless firms.

This was no place for Froggy, a man who never found a steady job after the pit closed, just odd ones, lopping trees, tidying gardens and even burning boxes for the greengrocer, in return for free vegetables. He hankered for his hardline NUM soulmates and sought them out in their diminishing numbers in Yorkshire and Northumberland.

Mr Boyer, a mysterious, solitary man whose only interests appear to be motorbikes and hunting animals in Annesley woods, also shared the victim's struggle for work. For him, the world of employment closed when he was 23, after seven years at Linby and Hucknall collieries. Apart from spells as a security guard and a tin production worker in Mansfield, he was an unemployed drifter. He was divorced years ago and has no children.

"He is a solitary lad but as a young man working at the colliery he took some pride in himself," Mr Buxton said. "Everyone in the Badgerbox pub said he looked like Gary Numan."

Mr Frogson's funeral is planned as a ceremonial NUM affair, with a big Yorkshire contingent. "It's going to be a nightmare," a villager said. "Froggy was a hero in Yorkshire even though he wasn't one here. They reckon they are going to carry his coffin through the village. It will be just like the IRA. There won't be a crematorium big enough for them all."

Annesley's old colliery is a derelict shell, still strewn with orange overalls, boxes of purchase-order receipts and glass from the canteen where Larwood once supped his tea.

On an exposed wall, a sticker parades the merits of the last of the men who shared Keith Frogson's fighting union spirit. "Area official - vote Tanner, your number 1 choice", it reads. It is dated January, 1993, less than 12 months before the lights went out.

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